Hot on the heels of Cardiff rocking the EIHL with the signing of Paul Bissonnette, and the almost-immediate dashing of those hopes as Biznasty found himself an AHL contract almost immediately afterwards, you’d have thought that everything would have settled down again in EIHL waters. Indeed, Bissonnette’s non-appearance, even though Cardiff were always open and upfront about the possibility of him never making it to the EIHL, had somewhat poured cold water on the “EIHL is progressing look at this” crowd (of which I was one).
Until yesterday night, that is, when Belfast made a signing that may not quite have the instant PR impact of Paul Bissonnette (simply because nothing could have the impact of signing one of the biggest personalities in hockey) but will certainly have the same impact on ice. Particularly on both EIHL scoresheets and opposition defencemen.
The Giants have made a massive statement. A statement coming in the form of a 6’4, 228lb Canadian behemoth named Kevin Westgarth, joining straight from the NHL’s Calgary Flames as their final import, and making a Giants team that already looked like it was hitting its stride after a week or three of adjustment into something truly special.
Westgarth will arrive in Belfast on Tuesday, which means he misses this weekend…however, having got my first (live) sight of the 2014/15 Belfast Giants in Coventry last Tuesday, it seems that he’ll be coming into a team that’s already showing ominous signs of recapturing its league form from last season.
On Tuesday night the Giants went through the Blaze with a surgical precision, bracing and holding against the early flurry of the Blaze attacks with ease, before using their fast skating, positional sense and lethal snap-snap-snap passing to disembowel the Blaze defence with all the emotion and effort of an elephant stomping on a fly, or perhaps more apt, a man slicing a steak with a razor-sharp katana. Rather than attempting to bludgeon their opponents into submission, the Giants looked at the Blaze’s efforts almost with pity, before they stepped up a gear or two and simply blew them off their own ice in a pitiless, vicious display of superb attacking hockey.
This was a Giants squad, unsurprisingly, that was drilled to within an inch of its life and knew exactly what it was doing-unsurprising, perhaps, given that it’s a squad where most members have played together for a year or more.
What’s most terrifying about it, though, is that it was a Giants squad missing its 2nd-line centre and arguably top sniper in Mark McCutcheon and Kevin Saurette that still looked like it was as far above the Blaze as the Everest summit is above base-camp.
Now, that team has added the steel fist to go with the velvet gloves, in the shape of Westgarth. Some “experts” around the EIHL have desperately tried to minimise his signing by focusing on his “toughness”, claiming that he’s only a fighter and isn’t skilled-he’s filling a need that the Giants arguably don’t have.
Anyone who thinks that a 6’4, 228lb NHL power forward won’t come into the EIHL and be a force either doesn’t know how hockey works or has never seen an EIHL game in their lives. Especially when that player comes into a squad with some of the most accurate shooting from the blue-line in the EIHL behind him and with the size and nous to park himself right in front of the net and experience of battling with defencemen far, far bigger and better than most he’ll face in the EIHL.
Westgarth will cause havoc-and adds an extra dimension to the Giants that will have the likes of Rob Sandrock and Jeff Mason licking their lips as they load up their cannons from the blue-line. He’s the battering ram that can clear the way for the Giants’ skill players and means that they can adapt even more effectively to play any style of hockey needed…a rare quality among EIHL teams.
Westgarth is a clever man, too…he has a degree from Princeton University and has shown signs of being a far better player then the scrapper he was moulded into in the NHL and AHL…it’ll be fascinating to see, like with Bissonnette (who scored at nearly two points a game in the UK) just how far his scoring ability can go.
More to the point, though, Westgarth could, hopefully, be the first of a trend in the future. The very fact that a previous backwater league like the EIHL is now considered an option by players straight from the NHL more and more is a massive positive…it’ll be interesting to see whether the EIHL can take this leap further or whether he’ll be an isolated case as the standard in the UK continues to slowly rise back to ISL levels…
But that’s a matter for the future. The big news at the moment is that the Giants have just got a lot, lot better. And given that they were pretty damn impressive on Tuesday and annihilated the supposedly-strong Coventry while two imports down, that’s a very scary prospect this Hallowe’en indeed.